The goats are scrambling up through the narrow grassy chutes between the basalt cliffs behind our house. I am in the garden, scythe in hand, hacking dried cornstalks to the ground. I gaze up at the rocky outcroppings and listen to the sound of Honey’s bell, collared around her neck. She scampers out of sight, followed by her triplet kids, and our other nanny, Mercy, and her kid. Mercy’s kid lingers below the herd, indulging on some sweet patch of grass. I sweep a long strand of hair from my face and smile as I fold my arms around my chest and survey my kingdom: the effervescent creek that tumbles nearby; my vegetable garden now covered in hoar frost; the apple trees laden with plump red orbs, sweet with sugar from the cold nights; the day-lit mutant moon gliding across my field of vision; the whoops and hollers of my three young sons as they careen round and round the island of yellow-leafed birch trees; sentries in the center of the gravel driveway.
My husband Mike and I own twenty-three acres in the middle of nowhere, in the panhandle of Idaho, bordered by State Forest land. We are here trying to find a meaning to our lives by seeking a simple lifestyle, which is by no means easy. We grow food by the bucketful; I have canned nearly two hundred quarts of produce from our garden this year; dried pears, plums, and apples; ground goat meat into sausage. We grow and roast chicory for coffee substitute. We grind wheat berries, traded for vegetables, into flour for bread. I have worn the cover off of Carla Emery’s Old Fashioned Recipe Book and learned to separate curds from whey to make cheese, yogurt, and ice cream. My boys are thriving, I think, in our self-induced paradise. Fresh air. Freedom from freeways. Financially independent of rising and falling stock values. City people who have shed our roots in an attempt to raise a healthy family.
We slaughter animals, which is not easy, and it’s not pretty to watch. But we don’t shield our sons’ eyes from the blow of the axe on the chicken’s neck, or the slice of the throat of a young goat with the six-inch blade, or the thrashing of limbs and rolling of dying yellow eyes, the last gasp of breath, or the floodgate of crimson blood that spurts from the open wound. Taking life does not come without deep breaths and gritted teeth.
Once the animal is dead, I hum softly to myself as I gut the carcass and imagine the crisp golden brown of roasting turkey flesh basted with butter, or the sizzle of goat sausage on the grill, or the succulent aroma of rabbit stewed in tomato and basil sauce.
We kill with purpose, without malice. We don’t do violence on our little farm, although my sons have crafted many a stick into weapons. We stroke the ears of the goat, whispering, “Good girl, good girl, that’s a good girl,” before stabbing the blade deep into the jugular.
This is our land; this is our place; this is our home. I am deeply rewarded by coaxing little miracles of DNA from the soil to morph into carrots. I revere the cobalt columns standing guard above our cedar-sided home, the house remolded like potter’s clay onto the old foundation. This meandering stream of water gurgling outside our front door bears wiggly fish and frogs, and glassy pebbles that my boys gather into their jean pockets. They have thrown these pebbles at our helpless chickens as they flock, squawking, to a corner of the wire fence. This, after throwing raw eggs at the helpless creatures. Clannish young warriors hunting helpless prey. I have caught them with stones hurled in mid-air. And hurling stones at each other; the ongoing feud between Peter and Gabe, and their older but weaker brother, Zeke, who has a congenital heart defect. But push to shove, I am certain that for all their external rivalry, for all their retaliatory warfare, they would protect each other from harm. And I would shield these sons of mine with my life.
We spared Creamy’s life. She was born right outside the kitchen window. The boys stood by, ready with cloth towels to dry Honey’s kids, then name them and claim them for their own. We have never let baby goats nurse from their mama. We have always bottle-fed them as it imprints humans as their mother and immediately tames them. Creamy was the last born of three, unusually frail and small, and too weak to stand. Ten-year-old Zeke gently wrapped her in his torn and tattered blue blanket. “Hi Creamy,” he whispered. If we were real farmers, we would have held her head in a bucket of water, or slit her throat and thrown the carcass in the dumpster.
But we are not. We are a couple of thirty-something city kids, living on a farm, reinventing the wheel with our hand labor.
I stripped the thick yellow colostrum – the first nourishing liquid mammals produce –from Honey’s udder, and poured it carefully into three Coke bottles, fit the yellow rubber nipples over the top, and handed one to each of the boys. Honey was led to the barn and given a double helping of oats and fresh alfalfa hay. Zeke carried tiny Creamy inside and sat cross-legged in the middle of the quarry-tiled kitchen floor tenderly caressing the newborn kid. I think Zeke understood Creamy’s language when they touched, nose to nose, like Eskimos kissing. When Creamy could walk on her own, she followed Zeke everywhere.
Creamy slept inside in a cardboard box next to our bed so as to spare our slumbering son, as she had to be fed every couple of hours during the night. Mike and I took turns getting up with her, heating and bottling the milk, cradling her in our arms while she nursed, refusing to see how silly it was to nurture an animal we should have culled. Creamy grew strong and fit and Zeke walked her around the yard with her pink puppy-dog leash and rhinestone-studded collar.
By the time Creamy was weaned and ready to sell, she and Zeke were nearly inseparable. We had too many goats; this one I could not butcher. I put an ad in the paper: Purebred goat; three months, mother gives two gallons. A few days later a black Ford pickup rambled down our driveway and a man and woman my age climbed out of the cab.
“Is this the place with the goats for sale?” the man asked.
“Yep,” I said. Creamy took two leaps toward them in her rhinestone collar, flicked her head cockeyed, and they lost their hearts.
“She’s adorable!” the woman said.
“Yes,” I sighed.
The man handed me a small stack of dollar bills. “Will this be okay?”
“Sure,” I said as I shrugged my shoulders and brushed away tears. They carried Creamy to the truck in their arms and drove off down the driveway, under the log arch, and up the winding dirt road. I watched until the dust settled again. Biting my lip, I turned toward the house to find Zeke.
A photo is etched in my memory of a grinning Zeke, hazel eyes lit up, a grey hood wrapped around his face from the spring chill, cradling Creamy the morning she was born. Her legs dangle like pick-up sticks as he carries her inside.
The sun falls below the western hills and the air instantly cools. I gather my sons and return to the house. The wood stove crackles with warmth as I feed a tamarack log into the firebox. Earlier today we stirred yeast and honey into warm water in a blue pottery bread bowl and watched it bubble and froth as it fermented, then added a pinch of salt and flour until the dough was squishy and pliable in our hands. We shaped it into round loaves and let it rise. It is now baking, and as I pull it from the wood cookstove, the house fills with the ancient aroma of leavened bread.
Mike’s red Explorer rolls up the driveway. The boys scamper out the door with their arms wide to greet him. They cling like monkeys as he tromps inside. It’s hunting season; he grabs his florescent orange vest and trudges up the trail for the goats.
Long shadows cover the garden this purple evening as Mike climbs the cliffs to lead the goats down for milking. They have favorite ledges where they like to lie, and it’s not difficult to spot them from the garden, scanning up the south-facing slope. We know every ledge and grassy knoll, the pathways they have made over the years up and down from the barn. We have hiked these cliffs a hundred times. Now, the rosehips are ready to pick, the wild sumac flames scarlet and orange, the deciduous larch trees glow gold in the sunset. But the goats are nowhere in sight.
“Honey, Mercy!” The tin can rattles full of grain. Through the open kitchen window I hear Mike’s voice echo across the canyon. I listen for the answering bleat and jingle of the bells around their necks, but there is only silence.
Our goats never came home. Twelve years of milking goats ended that quickly. We called, we hiked, we asked our neighbors up the gulch. No one had seen them. We scanned the cliffs for months before burning the milk stand for warmth in our woodstove. That winter we moved to Montana.
Twenty years have passed. Today, we live afloat on a houseboat in Seattle. We own one very small, very old, nearly blind Pomeranian. I grow cucumbers, tomatoes, and herbs in pots on our rooftop deck. Killing is killing; we eat very little meat. My children are grown, and one is gone. Zeke died from complications of his scrambled heart. He died peacefully, as I held his hand and rubbed his back. I watched him breathe his one. last. breath.
Our goat years were the greatest years of our lives. I have never since physically worked so hard, or been filled with so much daily struggle and reward, or experienced so much passion for life. The greater the struggle, the greater the reward. And the greater the loss.
I still remember Honey’s warm nose and the way she would nuzzle her face into my belly. I like to imagine she took her herd to a kinder kingdom; where grass grows tender and green year round, where all babies are born strong, and no one snatches them away at birth.
This is a reprint of work originally published in Hot Metal Bridge.
Susan Jostrom lives in a floating home in Seattle, just across a small space of water from the Sleepless houseboat. She has been published in Hot Metal Bridge, Signs of Life, Kaleidoscope, in airline journals, and other local publications. She holds an MFA in creative nonfiction.